When an invention isn’t an invention

The uncritical way the media treat invention has been highlighted again by a rash of stories about 13-year old Laurence Rook and his Smart Bell. This is a doorbell that, when pressed, rings a mobile phone and enables the absent householder to talk to the caller. Someone making a delivery can then be instructed where to leave it; and any burglars trying the door can be fooled into thinking someone is at home. It’s apparently due to appear in UK shops later this year.

We don’t think many people will buy it, but that’s not the point. When we see stories like this, our Research and Report instinct kicks in and the thought: ‘Hold on, this doesn’t sound very original’ leads to a quick patent search. Usually we find enough prior art to make us conclude that the whole story is built on sand.

This time we’ve been beaten to it by Steven van Dulken of British Library, whose blog post of 8 June 2011 makes very interesting reading. He’s searched and found that patent applications for Laurence’s idea have been filed before by other inventors, and not granted because of prior art. He also found that patent applications filed by Laurence’s adult collaborator terminated before publication.

So what has Laurence actually got? A product that uses his name and photo for publicity purposes but the IP for which seems unlikely to belong to him. If whoever owns the rightful IP to this idea gets wind of the Smart Bell, there might be a right old legal mess.

And that’s the real story here: not ‘13-year old inventor’ but perhaps ‘13-year old patent infringer’. No longer sweet; in fact, decidedly sour. And the media seem to have missed it entirely, by taking information at face value. Would they have been so lax if the story had been ‘MP invents smart doorbell’? They’d have been all over it looking for mud to sling.

This failure to go into ‘Hold on a minute…’ mode happens repeatedly when press releases about inventions hit the news room in-tray. It does invention no favours, perpetuating the delusion that if you call something an invention, it is one.

We blogged some time ago about a lady hailed as the inventor of a duvet cover that opened on three sides. We found six prior art patents in about as many minutes. Then there was the taxi driver who got publicity for inventing a hands-free umbrella. Twenty minutes on Espacenet unearthed enough prior art to make it clear that he too was infringing someone else’s patent.

In most similar cases, and certainly in Laurence’s, there is little doubt that everyone is acting with the best of intentions and that any infringement is inadvertent. But that may cut little ice in law, and situations like this can so easily be avoided by carrying out a prior art (patent and product) search. There’s no excuse for not doing it. It can be free, it can be quick and it’s relatively simple. (Or we can do it for you.)

Often – very often – a patent search will dash all hope that an idea is original and worth developing. But if you have a creative mind, another idea will soon take its place. And it’s far better to get the bad news early, before you’ve anything to lose. Spend serious money and time on an idea before finding out that it’s not original – and thus not yours – and you risk getting very badly hurt indeed.


One Comment

  • 15 Jun 2011 | Permalink |

    Excellent article, my thoughts exactly – although probably better put!

    Our patent, which was GRANTED in 2003, has an intercom that calls you on your mobile at the very core, and is specifically aimed at the unattended exchange of postal items, see http://www.parcelpal.com/parcel-boxes

    People should at least do a modicum of research before they claim an invention as their own… A simple search for “intercom phone” returns 189 patent results (although many of these will be incomplete / denied I’m sure). I personally recall spending several months searching the Internet and Patent Office records before I was ready to file my own patent – to be totally sure it was original, and even then I didn’t move on it until it was granted.

    This idea is not original, nor has it been for some time… Can anyone go back before 2003? Personally I doubt it, or our patent would have been denied and I’d be working with a different idea.

    I wish anyone selling just an intercom that phones you on your mobile all the luck in the world, it’s not a lot of use by itself in my humble opinion.

    May your ideas be inspired AND original.
    Steve Bungard.